The film depicts a unit of medical personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War; the subtext is about the Vietnam War. It stars Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, and Elliott Gould, with Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, René Auberjonois, Gary Burghoff, Roger Bowen, Michael Murphy, and in his film debut, professional football player Fred Williamson.
The film won Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, later named Palme d'Or, at 1970 Cannes Film Festival. The film went on to receive five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay. MASH was deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. The Academy Film Archive preserved MASH in 2000. The film inspired the popular and critically acclaimed television series M*A*S*H, which ran from 1972 to 1983.
The plot is told as a series of (presumably chronological) vignettes surrounding the life of the namesake Mobile Army Surgical Hospital where it is set. While the episodic film lacks the cohesion of an overarching singular plot with a traditional narrative structure, the vignettes do present a clear means for the film to explore the themes of military life.
Set in 1951 in South Korea, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital is assigned two replacements: Captains "Hawkeye" Pierce and "Duke" Forrest, who arrive in a stolen Jeep. They are insubordinate, womanizing, mischievous rule-breakers, but they soon prove to be excellent combat surgeons. As the film progresses, further scenes introduce additional characters. Some characters are already at the camp when Hawkeye and Duke arrive, such as the bumbling commander Henry Blake, his hyper-competent chief clerk Radar O'Reilly, the morose dentist Walter "Painless" Waldowski, the incompetent and pompous surgeon Frank Burns, and the contemplative Chaplain Father Mulcahy. Other characters arrive after Hawkeye and Duke, and become integrated into camp life, such as surgeon Trapper John and Nurse Margaret Houlihan. After the characters are introduced, which forms the opening act, further comedic episodes explore the evolving relationships between the characters.
The main characters in the camp divide into two factions; Hawkeye, Duke, and Trapper John form one faction; all three were drafted into the army and are not as dedicated to the mission or lifestyle of the military. They are prone to pranks and heavy drinking. The other faction forms around the romantic relationship between Majors Houlihan and Burns, who are both career military personnel. The two factions battle back and forth in a series of pranks and reprisals (one involving exposing a naked Houlihan to the camp when the walls of the shower tent are collapsed, another embarrassing the couple by exposing their heretofore secret romance) until Burns is goaded into punching Hawkeye and removed from the unit for psychiatric evaluation. The removal of Burns changes the camp social dynamic and marks the transition to the third act.
Trapper and Hawkeye are removed to Japan to operate on a congressman's son. When they later perform an unauthorized operation on a local infant, they face discipline by the hospital commander for misusing army resources until they drug him and stage pictures with a prostitute, saving themselves through blackmail. Upon returning to Korea, General Hammond and Colonel Blake organize a "friendly" football game, with some money thrown into a pot to make bets ($5,000 or $6,000). Hawkeye and Blake arrange for a plan in order to assure victory. First, they get Henry to apply for a specific neurosurgeon: Dr. Oliver Harmon Jones, a former professional football player for the San Francisco 49ers. Then, they bet half their money up front and keep the ringer (Jones) out of the first half of the game. During the game, Houlihan uncharacteristically participates as a cheerleader in an effort to fit in. Once the other team racks up some easy points and becomes confident enough to offer good odds to bet the rest of the money, the 4077th brings in Jones for the second half. The 325th has its own ringers, however, and the 4077th fights back with illegal injuries and by drugging the 325th's running back. The game comes down to the last play, in which the quarterback (Trapper) returns the ball to the center, SSgt. Vollmer, who hides the ball under his jersey and runs into the end zone for the winning touchdown.
Not long after the football game, Hawkeye and Duke get their discharge orders and begin their journey home—in the same stolen Jeep in which they arrived—as the intercom breaks the fourth wall by announcing the end of the film, giving a roll-call for the film's cast, and thanking the audience for watching.
The screenplay, by Ring Lardner, Jr., is different from the original novel. In the DVD audio commentary, Altman describes the novel as "pretty terrible" and somewhat "racist" (the only major black character has the nickname "Spearchucker"). He claims that the screenplay was used only as a springboard. While some improvisation occurs in the film and Altman changed the order of major sequences, most sequences are in the screenplay. The main deletion is a subplot of Ho-Jon's return to the 4077th as a casualty (when Radar steals blood from Henry, it is for Ho-Jon's operation under Trapper and Hawkeye's scalpels; when the surgeons are playing poker after the football game, they are resolutely ignoring Ho-Jon's corpse being driven away). The main deviation from the script is the trimming of much of the dialogue. According to Altman, Lardner was very upset with the liberties taken with his script, although Lardner denied this in his autobiography.
The filming process was difficult because of tensions between the director and his cast. During principal photography, Sutherland and Gould allegedly spent a third of their time trying to get Altman fired, although this has been disputed. Altman, relatively new to the filmmaking establishment at that time, lacked the credentials to justify his unorthodox filmmaking process and had a history of turning down work rather than creating a poor-quality product. Altman: "I had practice working for people who don't care about quality, and I learned how to sneak it in." Altman later commented that if he had known about Gould and Sutherland's protests, he would have resigned. Gould later sent a letter of apology, and Altman used him in some of his later works, but he never worked with Sutherland again.
Only a few loudspeaker announcements were used in the original cut. When Altman realized he needed more structure to his largely episodic film, editor Danford Greene suggested using more loudspeaker announcements to frame different episodes of the story. Greene took a second-unit crew and filmed additional shots of the speakers. On the same night these scenes were shot, American astronauts landed on the moon.
During production, a caption that mentions the Korean setting was added to the beginning of the film, at the request of 20th Century Fox studios. The Korean War is explicitly referenced in announcements on the camp public address system and during a radio announcement that plays while Hawkeye and Trapper are putting in Col. Merrill's office which also cites the film as taking place in 1951.
In his director's commentary on the DVD release, Altman says that MASH was the first major studio film to use the word "fuck" in its dialogue. The word is spoken during the football game near the end of the film by "the Painless Pole" when he says to an opposing football player, "All right, Bud, your fucking head is coming right off!" The actor, John Schuck, said in an interview that Andy Sidaris, who was handling the football sequences, encouraged Shuck to "say something that’ll annoy him." Shuck did so, and that particular statement made it into the film without a second thought.
MASH had its television premiere as a CBS Friday Night Movie on September 13, 1974, at 9:00 (EDT), three days after the debut of the third season of the M*A*S*H TV series; it was repeated on CBS March 5, 1976.
Johnny Mandel composed incidental music used throughout the film. Also heard on the soundtrack are Japanese vocal renditions of such songs as "Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy", "My Blue Heaven", "Happy Days Are Here Again", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", and "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo"; impromptu performances of "Onward, Christian Soldiers", "When the Lights Go On Again", and "Hail to the Chief" by cast members; and the instrumental "Washington Post March" during the climactic football game. Columbia Records issued a soundtrack album for the film in 1970.
MASH features the song "Suicide Is Painless", with music by Mandel and lyrics by Mike Altman, the director's then 14-year-old son. The version heard under the opening credits was sung by uncredited session vocalists John Bahler, Tom Bahler, Ron Hicklin, and Ian Freebairn-Smith (on the single release, the song is attributed to "The Mash"); the song is reprised later in the film by Pvt. Seidman (played by Ken Prymus) in a scene in which a character, a dentist called "Painless", attempts suicide. Altman has noted in interviews that his son made quite a bit more money off publishing royalties for the song than the $70,000 or so he was paid to direct the film.
It was the sixth most popular film at the French box office in 1970.
MASH received mostly positive reviews from critics. The film currently holds an 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 45 reviews, with an average rating of 8.4/10. The website's consensus states, "Bold, timely, subversive, and above all, funny, M*A*S*H remains a high point in Robert Altman's distinguished filmography." The film also holds a score of 79 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 7 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews."
MASH won the Palme d'Or at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (lost to Patton), Best Director (lost to Patton), Best Supporting Actress for Sally Kellerman (lost to Helen Hayes for Airport), and Best Film Editing (lost to Patton), and won an Oscar for its screenplay. The film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) in 1971. It was the 38th film to be released to the home video market when 20th Century Fox licensed 50 motion pictures from their library to Magnetic Video. In 1996, MASH was deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. The film is number 17 on Bravo's "100 Funniest Movies" and number 54 on "AFI" list of the top 100 American movies of all time.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:1998: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – #56
2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #7
2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
"Suicide Is Painless" – #66
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Maj. Margaret O'Houlihan: "Oh, Frank, my lips are hot. Kiss my hot lips." – Nominated
2007: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #54
The film was re-released in North America in 1973, and earned an estimated $3.5 million in rentals. To attract audiences to the M*A*S*H television series, which was struggling with audiences at the time, the film was re-released at 112 minutes and received a PG rating. Several scenes were edited, including segments of graphic operations, the word "fuck" in the football game, and the scene where the curtain in the shower is pulled up on Hot Lips. "Suicide is Painless", the film's main theme song was replaced with music by Ahmad Jamal, according to film critic and historian Leonard Maltin in his movie and video guide. In the 1990s, Fox Video released a VHS version of MASH under their "Selections" banner which ran 116 minutes and rated PG. However, this is not the alternate PG version which was released in 1973. It has the same run time as the theatrical release; none of the aforementioned scenes or theme music was removed. The actual 1973 PG-edited version has never been released on video in the United States.
This film was also released on betaMAX, Philips Video Cassette system, CED Video Disc, and Laser Disc.
A "restored" version of the film was released in a two-disc set on DVD (through Fox's "Five-Star Collection" series) in 2002, which included the feature film, as well as about 2 hours of bonus features.
A single disc release was released on DVD in 2004. In 2006, the same single disc release was included in the boxed set "The Robert Altman Collection", which included "MASH", "A Perfect Couple", "Quintet", and "A Wedding". Also in 2006, the single-disc edition was included with the complete M*A*S*H collection, called "Martinis and Medicine Collection". The single-disc edition was included in other Fox sets as well.
In 2009, MASH was released on the Blu-Ray format, incorporating most of the features that were included on the two-disc DVD release.